Some national governments have adopted a wide variety of measures to address violence against women, including legal reform, public education campaigns, and support for shelters and rape crisis centres, but other governments have done little to confront the problem. What accounts for these differences in policy? To answer this question, we analysed policies on violence against women in 70 countries from 1975 to 2005. Our analysis reveals that the most important and consistent factor driving policy change is feminist activism. This plays a more important role than left-wing parties, numbers of women legislators, or even national wealth. In addition, our work shows that strong, vibrant domestic feminist movements use international and regional conventions and agreements as levers to influence policy-making. Strong local movements bring home the value of global norms on women’s rights.